“Writing the Caribbean superhero novel” by Robert E. Sandiford
My wife calls my new novel And Sometimes They Fly “the Caribbean superhero book.” That’s how she referred to it the fifteen years I spent writing it, though its starting point became clear to me after the events of 9/11. Before you think she was mistaking magic realism or speculative fiction fantasy for something else, no, And Sometimes They Fly really does deal with heroes, legends and myth building in the context of Barbados and comics.
I was and still am a comics collector. When I moved to Barbados from Canada in 1996, an old college friend and fellow pannapictagraphist would buy and store my books until my next trip Back Home. Like me, Mike, who is also a dedicated high school teacher with a BA in English, can’t help but see comics as literature. Among my influences as a writer, alongside Joseph Conrad, Alice Munro, Elmore Leonard, Robert Cormier, and Linda M. Deane, stand Bob Kane, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Alan Moore, Ho Che Anderson, and Bill Finger.
Canadian poet and anarchist George Woodcock once commented that “Canadians do not like heroes, and so they do not have them.” Initially, I had set And Sometimes They Fly entirely in Canada; I wanted to explore this notion of the heroless society. After living in Barbados, where my parents came from, and revisiting the Caribbean folklore of my youth, I began to see similarities between how the two countries treated their heroes: with equal measures of reverence and mistrust. Then the Twin Towers were attacked and fallen, and it seemed to me unwise to talk of heroes in terms of one setting, one time and place, when so many people everywhere suddenly felt threatened.
To paraphrase a line from Frank Miller‘s 1986 Daredevil story arc “Born Again” with artist David Mazuchelli: they all wore the flag, and that made these characters of mighty interest to me. Woodcock’s assertion aside, these were indigenous, homegrown heroes birthed to battle alongside their allies, fight evil, and inspire hope, victory.
That’s the nature of Western superheroes, isn’t it? Even so, their efforts increasingly in these shadowy times are not without great sacrifice. If he or she shows up, the hero doesn’t always live to fight another day; saving the world is done an hour at a time–or, as in the action television series 24, from hour to hour–not in decisive battle scenes.
Kiefer Sutherland’s Agent Jack Bauer in 24 is the ultimate contemporary superhero. He’s faithful to his mission. He protects the people he loves. He keeps his word. He’s always honourable, even when circumventing untenable orders. Only a Canadian actor like Sutherland could play him as strong and sympathetically as he does. But Bauer doesn’t always win.
The villains seem easier to name. Barbadians have the steel donkey, baccous, la djablès, and a number of other mythical folk creatures. Although there’s nothing that says the Heart Man can’t use his powers for good, or that he can’t be recast as a she, none of these characters (at present) walks wholly or truly in the light. And Sometimes They Fly is an attempt to coax their bright nemeses out of obscurity into useful service, particularly at a time when the first instinct for many is to run and hide during a crap storm, or let someone else clean up the mess.
To find these everyday heroes, it’s tempting to drain the pool of all politics. Honestly, political engagement, like a codename, has always been required. Superman, Captain America, even Batman and Wonder Woman, are political symbols of one age or another. Among the many ideas I wanted to explore with super-powered Barbadian characters like Marsha, Franck and David in my novel is the notion that if you want to have a greater say in how your world turns out, you have to be willing to make a greater contribution; you have to be willing to take action, and risk sacrifice.
It’s not about military might making right, either, nor about seeking favourable odds in the war against evil. We sometimes forget, because of who they are, and sometimes because of where we come from, that all superheroes are outgunned, even the mightiest. All superheroes have a fatal weakness that can possibly bring them to defeat.